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The Battle of San Pietro

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The Battle of San Pietro

Published 1945
Topics war, WWII, documentary

Documentary of the US efforts to take Italy by acclaimed director John Huston. The US Army which commissioned the film refused to show it because it was too honest in its portrayal of the high cost of battle and the difficulties faced.

Run time 43:00
Sponsor US Army Pictorial Service
Audio/Visual sound, black & white


Reviewer: racerbill27 - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - June 15, 2011
Subject: A War Correspondents view of San Pietro
My father was an AP War correspondent (Photographer(. This is a letter he sent to my mother On Dec 18, 1943. The "Willie" referred to in the letter is me. I would have included a photo of the rose and the envelope, however I guess that this forum won't accept photos.

I hope you enjoy...William C. Allen, Jr.

Letter to Rene
The Battle for San Pietro.

December 18, 1943
Dearest Renee,

I am going to tell you a story. I can write about it because I am a War Correspondent, not assigned to any particular outfit and therefore I am not giving any military secrets away.

Today the town of San Pietro fell to the Allies and I was there when it fell. San Pietro was one of the key German positions in their winter line and was holding up our advance towards Rome. For over three weeks we have been trying to break through and today we did. Jim Wright and I started out early in the morning before daylight to enable us to be on the scene when and if our troops went to work. We arrived at Venefro just about dawn and started up the mountain that goes up from there. The town of Venefro is nestled at the root of one of a series of mountain peaks and San Pietro is in the valley on the other side. We were able to drive in our jeep up one side of the mountain, but because of snipers in the hills on the other side, it was necessary to leave the jeep and continue the rest of the way on foot. There was a winding road down the side of the mountain that had been blasted something terrible by our artillery. Our tanks had attempted to go down this road the day before and some of them never made it. All along the route were scenes of utter destruction. German vehicles, blasted bridges, wrecked and burned American tanks, dead American doughboys, swollen and bloated cattle and donkeys lined the road. The American engineers were looking for mines and we were told that if we stayed in the center of the road, we would be fairly safe. We were also warned to be careful of booby traps and, even being the souvenir hunter I am, I had no intention of practicing my hobby at that time. We wound our way down the road, past these results of war, with a company of infantry. I felt very funny as all I had to shoot with was a camera.

Rounding a bend in the road, where one of our tanks had been blasted apart, we came into view of the town of San Pietro. Honey, you have never seen, nor could you imagine, such a sight. Here was a town that had once been a very pretty little place with a population of 1,080 and not one building had been spared.

As we came into the town, an Italian woman came out of a house cellar and stood watching us. I made a picture of her waving to the soldiers as they went by. We continued up what had been the main road, but was now a pile of rubble. On through the town we went, not seeing a soul besides the old woman until we came to the outskirts on the other side. There was a ravine here that led out of town and I saw a couple of Italian men standing there. I went up to try to talk to them and saw a small opening in the side of the hill. As I came up, a little boy came out of the opening and in a few minutes he was followed by several others. It went on this way until there were about 250 people along a path that led from this small hole. They had been living in caves all together to get out of the terrific pounding that had been necessary to give the town to get the Germans out. When we arrived, it was the first time they had been in the daylight for days. There were tears in their eyes as they recognized us as Americans. Old men kissed my hands. One old woman hung on my arm and cried. I never felt so helpless in my life. There was nothing I could do for them.

I had to get my pictures and so I went to work. I made pictures of a couple of Kids and an old woman at the entrance to the cave and then made a couple of general views of the whole crowd. One of the Italian men, who spoke English, told us that there was an injured German up in the town and so we went to look for him. . A funny thought crossed my mind as we climbed over the ruined town, I was thinking that at last I was going to get Willie that German that I had promised him. I guess seeing the plight of so many hungry, dirty, unfortunate kids was what brought the idea to me. As we were winding our way through the mess, we met him. He was on a stretcher, being carried by Italians, directed by a couple of American Medicos. He sure was a sad example of the “Master Race”. His foot was all shot up and he had sores all over his hands. I made a couple of shots of him being carried down and then continued on. Our Italian spokesman and guide told us that there were some wounded civilians further on so we continued. The odor of rotting flesh was a thing I will never forget. There must be hundreds of people, both German soldiers and Italian civilians beneath the tons of fallen buildings. There were dead animals everywhere, all blasted apart. It is a good thing that I have a strong stomach or else my picture expedition would have stopped right there. But not having good sense (of smell, that is) we went on. We came to the remains of a street and in a blasted building there were several wounded Italians. All through this letter, when I speak of Italians, I mean civilians, not soldiers. There were a couple of men and some other people in there. It was to dark inside to make any pictures so I asked them to come outside. We were the first Americans they had seen and were very reluctant to come out until the guide we had with us explained to them that everything was alright and that the shelling had stopped. The word spread around that the Americans were in and people started showing up from cellars all over the place. One of the Italians couldn’t walk so another carried him out. About that time a couple of American Medics showed up and started administering to the wounded. One woman was wounded in the leg and also had a nasty gash on her face. It made swell pictures but it was awful. Another woman showed up with a baby about 4 or 5 months old or younger that was badly burned on its arm. An old man was crying, everybody was talking at once trying to show their thanks that we had driven the Germans out. After I had made a lot of pictures there, I started to leave. A couple of the little kids gave me the Fascist salute. I turned to them and imitating the Fascist salute said, “Not cum sa,” and then giving the old American “Hi - ya babe” salute said, “Cum sa’ The people around me applauded actually and there was more kissing of my hands. It was touching indeed if anything ever was. I am sorry that I was not able to photograph it, but it is just like I have told you in other letters, sometimes you can get to close to things to make pictures of them.

Our guide offered to take us to the church of the town and so we took off again. It was in shambles and I made several pictures around and in it. Leaving there, our guide asked me if I would take a picture of his sister. I said “Of course.” He led me to a clearing outside the church and there was his sister, dead. She had been lying in the open in front of the shattered house where he and the rest of his family had taken shelter, for three days. When we showed up, several women came out of the house with their belongings piled on their head. They were all crying as they passed the body and I made the picture. Just prior to this, the Germans had started to shell the town, so I figured it was time to get out while I could.

I had made over 60 pictures and wanted to be sure they got into print. Ken Dixon, an AP reporter, had met Jim and I just as we entered the town and had accompanied us on our trip. He said that he would include our names in his story because we were the first American War Correspondents into the town.

We left the town and on the road back, I found a German dugout that had been fixed up to really spend the winter in. It was dug into the side of a hill and even had a red plush divan in it - loot from the town. The entire area around the town was blasted just like a movie set for “What Price Glory”, but there was a rose bush in full bloom that had withstood the ordeal. I picked one for you and it is enclosed. You might call it a “Shell-shocked bud from San Pietro.”

You asked me for some enlightenment on what I did with my time. This should give you a rough idea. It is not an everyday occurrence, but it is one of those “Cooke’s Tours” I like (ha - ha) to go on once in a while to find out what my taxes are being used for. Oh yes, Bill Strand started up there late in the afternoon and couldn’t get into town because the Germans were laying down a barrage in the joint. You see, I say my prayers every night.

Anything exciting going on back home?

Reviewer: truestory - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - April 28, 2011
Subject: It was real footage.
The cameraman on The Battle of San Pietro was the photographer, and later producer, Jules Buck. James Agee wrote at length about his heroic and priceless collaboration with John Huston , and Eric Ambler gives some of the back story in his memoir. I was present when the great documentarian Ricky Leacock watched The Battle Of San Pietro with Jules Buck in Paris in 1999, and Buck carefully showed Leacock what had been staged: Only the soldiers walking. Period. Buck explained that the interstitial material is always staged in any documentary, after the important moments have been recorded. Otherwise the cameraman would waste all his film shooting banal footage.
Reviewer: kimpunkrock - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 31, 2010
Subject: not all fake
If you guys think that the footage of the dead bodies and germans is fake you are out of your mind. why do u think the army refused to show it, because it was because it was all too real. Are u guys saying it is fake working for the govt or what!

This is one of the best docs made during the war by a hollywood director. This and With the Marines at Tarawa are the best of the best of these docs!
Reviewer: KaySchmidt - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - June 16, 2010
Subject: live, or re-created?
Looking again at the film after 30 years, it seems clear that much of the opening footage could be re-created rather than live without spoiling the truth of the film. Shots of truck tires advancing through soupy mud, or rivers in flood, even of soldiers hitting the dirt of foxholes, can be filmed in comparatively peaceful hours.
But the floppy white body bags? A director's trick? I don't think so.
Reviewer: Migosurf - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - February 12, 2010
Subject: First hand account
My father was in F-Company, 141st Regiment, 36th Division and was in this terrible battle. When i would go to the reunions the men that were in his company all to a man said that contrary to this movie they were the first ones to actually walk into San Pietro when the Germans pulled out. I have walked this deserted battlefield in 2000 and it is still littered with shrapnel from artillery. I was told by the men that were there some of this was staged and some was real. They considered this a hell on earth and that they were constantly exposed to fire with no where to hide.
Reviewer: Graham W - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 21, 2009
Subject: Somewhat annoyed at the truth of the matter (@ wolfiejo--reckon he's right).
@ wolfiejo. I have the DVD version of The Battle of San Pietro and I did not know it was mainly acted (although that's not unusual for war docos of this type--they perfected that trick in WW-I). However, when I first watched the footage several years ago (from the DVD) I thought at the time 'this one is different--bloody game cameramen--I wonder how many they've lost?'. In hindsight, you're probably right, but it's annoying--one has to be very vigilant. (IMHO some of the best and most poignant war footage are the raw unedited rolls of which there are a few here on the Internet Archive (of Iwo Jima). There's nothing really spectacular about them but you're seeing war as she's happening.)
Reviewer: cassino1944 - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - August 23, 2009
Subject: san oietro been there
my family is from that area of italy,the old town has been abandoned I have walked through the town many times,it is quite a surreal fealing from it.I bought the dvd of the film some years ago and have enjoyed it,have showen it to some of the locals who were alive at that time ask them do they have any memories,all they remember is noise& the hunger and the smell of the dead soldiers and destruction.yours peitro fugaccia
Reviewer: wolfiejo - favoritefavoritefavorite - April 8, 2009
Subject: "Hollywood-style war, not real war."
While this is a very intrieging movie, it does not show real war. It is very well documented that almost 95% of the footage in this film was staged. John Huston did not risk his life while filming this, and staged this against direct orders from the US Army Signal Corps not to do so. If you want more proof of this, read Armed with Cameras by Peter Maslowski (specificaly chapter 3 "Jeez, this is Just Like in the Movies.") The author of this book went to the national archives and looked up all of the reels used in the makeing of this film and "9 [reels] are undated, 4 are dated during the battle, and 33 are dated AFTER the battle." "28 [reels] indicate that the film was completely or partialy reenacted."

This film is Hollywood-style war, not real war. "San Pietro acheived 'the stamp of authenticity,' not authenticity."
Reviewer: BobbyJimmy - favoritefavorite - March 24, 2007
Subject: Interesting but largely faked...
People need to know that most footage was faked. If you watch the excellent documentary "Shooting War" it gives details about this, including how John Huston smacked the camera every time there was an explosion, and used the most dramatic pyrotechnics he could find. American soldiers played dead German soldiers, etc. In fact "Shooting War" has some amazing and disturbing real footage that you might not have seen before.
Reviewer: seekingclassics - favoritefavorite - March 24, 2007
Subject: Good Film, But Technical Problems
A great documentary but unfortunately the low res version can't be seen too well and the high-res copy has the sound badly out of sync. This seems to be a problem with a lot of MPEG2 files.
Reviewer: LovelyLaura1313 - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 18, 2006
Subject: once again..
maybe you all should do a little back round check before you watch this movie and make assumptions. i wrote a review earlier. none of the footage is fake folks. its all real. once again, there is a lot of my family in this movie. we own the movie at home, and my family members remember it happening. theres a scene of a lady laying above a gutter with flowers in her hand and she is dead. that would be my great aunt. and that would be where and when she died. when i visited san pietro i stood in that spot. once again, the footage isn't fake. thanks for reading ! :)
Reviewer: k-otic - favoritefavorite - June 15, 2006
Subject: All fake footage
You must know that almost all combat footage you can see in this movie are fake!

John Huston shot all scenes month after the actual fighting because he didn`t like the original combat footage provided by camera units of the 163rd Signal Corps.
Huston simply shot the combat footage you can see in this film with three eyemo`s and two battalions of the 36th division by using the most eyecatching ammunition he can get his hands on.

so, it`s just all fake hollywood you see in this movie, not a single american serviceman dies in it and some of the displayed "dead" soldiers are fake too.

but, besides beeing all fake, it is really nice made..
Reviewer: goonsquad4 - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - June 9, 2006
Subject: still disturbs and shocks because it is real
I am actually writing my MA dissertation on this film and the two other war documentaries Huston did for the Army--Report from the Aleutians (1943) and Let There Be LIght (1946). I have viewed San Pietro a dozen times now, and still learn more with each viewing. My research tells me this film is considered to be the best war documentary ever. That is a large claim but it is indeed the best I have ever seen. The film is vastly different than any newsreel-style, cheerleading documentary of the era, as the voice-over is sober, ironic, and poignant at times. The battle scenes are brutal as we see American servicemen actually getting killed in battle. I have seen recent documentaries about Irag and Afghanistan, but none compare with the horror seen in San Pietro. I would highly recommend this film to anyone, but it is a must for any "war buff," as is Huston's other two war documentaries.

Reviewer: Gunter - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - December 5, 2005
Subject: 46 minutes in 2 pictures
There is no need to say something about John Huston because he was probably one of the most appreciated movie man in the 40s and the 50s in America.
I saw the Battle of San Pietro for the first time when I bought the video in London by After The Battle in the late 1970s.
Since this day they are 2 pictures in the movie I will nerver forget : le little "man" wearing a beannie (jeep cap) and that sweet little girl behind her mother and sared like hell.
These two pictures are making this whole movie being one of the best ever made on world war two.


Gunter G. Gillot Jr

Historians & Collectors rating 8/10
Reviewer: John-boy - favoritefavoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - August 26, 2005
Subject: A very fine piece of work by Huston.
Those who would evaluate this documentary solely on its entertainment value are completely missing the point. This work portrays the battle using setup detail description and filming methods that take you right into the action. The ending, when the people of San Pietro come out of hiding and show their gratitude even in the midst of suffering casualties themselves by falling victim to enemy laid booby traps, leaves no doubt in the viewer's mind that this battle had to be fought. It's a shame that the Army chose not to show it to the public but the truth is that it's easy to understand why they didn't. As for the ending being "propaganda", nothing could be further from the truth. It was simply an accurate portrayal of the aftermath. To imply that the United States should have remained out of World War II is totally absurd.

I highly recommend viewing this film but it's not for the squeamish. There is nothing "slow moving" or "dull" about it.
Reviewer: bobsluckycat - favoritefavoritefavoritefavorite - July 21, 2005
Subject: War In Italy Up C lose
Upon viewing this film, it's easy to understand why the U.S. Army witheld it. The first two thirds are extremely stark and real. The narration of John Huston candid and matter-of-fact, dropping assorted facts and statistics to accompany the up close and personal fighting and dying, the body bags, and always the youthful faces of young men living minute to minute in war is intense. Huston never says that the battle for San Pietro was totally insane, but being a very real writer/director lets the reality speak for itself. The re-birth of the village is the kind of tacked on propaganda you would expect, but it too is barren and bleak.
Looking back to a time before television this was tough film making of the finest kind.
foot-note:San Pietro 61 years later is a green, somewhat still rural, beautiful place and you can still dig up bullets there. Highly recommended.
Reviewer: Christine Hennig - favoritefavoritefavorite - July 20, 2005
Subject: The Horror and the Boredom of Combat
This film documents the Battle of San Pietro, one of the most bloody and difficult of the Italian campaign in WWII. For the most part this is rather slow-moving and dull. However, there are some striking images of bodies being put into body bags, and multiple graves being dug, giving you an idea of just how bloody this battle was. And the ending, in which we see the townspeople of San Pietro emerging from the caves where they had been hiding, is fairly moving. Mostly, though, this is straightforward, and it could have had at least 15 minutes of it edited out without really losing anything. Unless they were trying to show us the boredom of combat, in which case they succeeded.
Ratings: Camp/Humor Value: N/A. Weirdness: **. Historical Interest: ****. Overall Rating: ***.
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